A Mini Course on State and Local Governments

State Governments

Each state is headed by a governor and other state-level elected officials such as a lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer or comptroller, and attorney general. You will find a list of the current governors of all the states and territories at the National Governors Association at
www.nga.org/portal/site/nga/menuitem.42b929b1a5b9e4eac3363d10501010a0/?vgnextoid=d54c8aaa2ebbff00VgnVCM1000001a01010aRCRD&vgnextfmt=curgov.

State governments reserve to themselves those powers not specifically delegated to the federal government. Among their powers and responsibilities are:

  • levying state taxes;
  • regulating ownership of personal property such as real estate and motor vehicles;
  • educating their citizens;
  • providing for their citizens' health and welfare;
  • guaranteeing law and order;
  • maintaining a court system to administer justice;
  • maintaining state roads;
  • regulating industry and intrastate commerce;
  • conducting elections and overseeing voting.

For further information, see Project Vote Smart's GOVERNMENT 101: State Government at
www.vote-smart.org/resource_govt101_09.php#Powers_of_the_States.

You will find links to each of the member states at the Council of State Governments site at http://www.csg.org/about/states.aspx.

How State Governments Are Different--from the Federal Government and Each Other

There are some important differences between the U.S. Congress and your state legislature. They also differ among themselves. These differences can affect your approach and success at influencing either body.

  • While most states have a bicameral (two chamber) legislature--an upper chamber (usually a state Senate) and a lower chamber (usually a state House, Assembly or House of Delegates (in Virginia))--Nebraska has a nonpartisan, unicameral (one chamber) legislature.
  • States like California and New York have large full-time legislative bodies with numerous committees and large staff, not unlike the U.S. Congress.
  • However, most state legislatures are considerably smaller, both in numbers of elected members and staff.
  • Some states have part-time legislatures which meet annually or biannually sometimes for only a few weeks.
  • State legislators may be more directly accessible to constituents. Your state Assemblyperson may be your next door neighbor or local hardware store proprietor. You may meet in the supermarket or at your place of worship. For these reasons, there is a greater likelihood that you will be able to relate to your state legislator on a more personal level than your House or Senate member in Washington. Remember, though, that if they do not have staff, they will be very busy.

Some Interesting Facts and Figures about State Governments

Nebraska has a unicameral legislature--a senate--composed of 49 members with 14 standing committees. The legislative sessions are short, only about three and one-half months each year. Their 98th Legislature, which convened in January 2004, adjourned on April 15, 2004.

New York, however, has a large bicameral legislature--a State Assembly composed of 149 members and a Senate composed of 62 members. The State Assembly has 56 committees, subcommittees, commissions and task forces; the Senate, 33 committees. Members of both the Assembly and the Senate have district offices to handle constituent issues.

Some states have no official salary but pay their legislators on a per diem basis. In 2005, California paid their legislators $110,880; New York paid their legislators $79,500 per year; New Hampshire paid its legislators $100 per year. You will find a chart at www.csg.org/about/documents/PagesfromFebruaryStateNews.pdf detailing the salaries including other compensation each state paid to their legislators.

According to the national Conference of State Legislatures, twelve states including New York meet all year. California lawmakers meet till November 30 one year and September 12 the second. In New Hampshire, the legislature meets no more than 45 session days. Utah meets only 45 calendar days.

California legislators are more remote from individual voters; each district includes about 423,000 voters-almost as many as in U.S. Congressional Districts. New York legislative districts contain about 126,000 voters. Connecticut House members are closer to the people, with about 22,500 voters per district.

Each year the California Legislature will propose, analyze, and debate over 6,000 bills in a single two-year session.

The Virginia General Assembly dates from the establishment of the House of Burgesses at Jamestown in 1619. It is heralded by Virginians as the "oldest continuous law-making body in the New World." The 1776 Virginia Constitution confirmed the bicameral legislature, which consists of the House of Delegates and Senate of Virginia.

New Mexico has a "citizen" legislature of 112 people: 42 State Senators and 70 State Representatives. Senators serve for 4 years and Representatives serve 2-year terms. The Legislature convenes every year, for 60 calendar days in the odd-numbered years and 30 calendar days in the even-numbered years.

The Vermont Legislature meets each Tuesday through Friday during the legislative session, which runs from early January through late April. The adjournment date varies from year to year, but in general the Legislature tries to complete its work in sixteen or seventeen weeks.

The bicameral state legislature of New Hampshire is called the General Court of New Hampshire. The lower house is the House of Representatives with 400 members. The upper house is the Senate with 24 members.

You will find links to each of the states' legislatures and individual state legislators at the National Conference of State Legislatures site at
www.ncsl.org/public/leglinks.cfm.

Information on State Governments

  • Your state may publish a state government manual, information about members, legislative calendars, or hearing schedules.
  • In this day of electronic information dissemination, states have web pages that contain information about government structure, legislation, services, and personnel.
  • An Internet search on the term "[name of your state] legislative information" should retrieve links to legislative information.

For information on state governments visit the following web sites.

C-Span, the cable-TV channel that covers Congress and the federal government also offers a State Politics web page with links to state legislature home pages and to live webcasts of state legislative sessions at
www.c-span.org/states/legislatures.asp?Cat=Current_Event&Code=St_Pol.

Library of Congress www.loc.gov/rr/news/stategov/stategov.html.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) is a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the nation's 50 states, its commonwealths and territories. You'll find their web site at http://www.ncsl.org.

Local Governments

The Constitution of the United States of America did not provide for local governments. Local governments are created by and regulated by the states which grant the powers of municipal governments in charters. Local governments include city, town, and county governments; other common forms of local government are townships, boroughs, and villages. While local governments can legislate local issues, they can pass no law that contradicts state law. Local governments have a wide range of elected officials from county executives and big city mayors with staff and "cabinets" to small town first selectmen. They range from part-time unpaid local officials to the officials of Washington, D.C. where the mayor and the city council (with some federal government oversight) have the powers, respectively, of a governor and a state legislature.

Local governments

  • levy local taxes to fund their activities;
  • provide its citizens with services such as a local police force and fire department and the commissions that regulate them;
  • provide sanitation services;
  • provide libraries and public schools and school boards;
  • regulate traffic;
  • maintain local streets;
  • regulate zoning.

Because local governments are at the grassroots level, your local legislator may be your best friend, your grocer, or your next door neighbor. They are usually more responsive to your inquiries or your request for assistance in solving local problems with trash collection, potholes, or zoning issues.

Information on Local Governments

The National Association of Counties (NACo) was created in 1935 to give county officials a strong voice in the nation's capital. You'll find their web site at www.naco.org/.

The National League of Cities is the oldest and largest national organization representing municipal governments throughout the United States. Its mission is to strengthen and promote cities as centers of opportunity, leadership, and governance. You'll find their web site at www.nlc.org/.

An Internet search on the word "municipalities" plus the name of the state should bring up links to a league/association/conference or listing of municipalities in that state. You will find information on topics such as staff, advocacy, policy/legislation, local government, publications, and job opportunities.

Search the Internet for town, borough, village, and other small local governments. Type in the name of the locale-even the tiny town of East Lyme, Connecticut (population just a little more than 18,000) (www.eltownhall.com/) and the village of Bremen, Ohio (www.bremenvillage.com/) have web sites! You will find information on topics such as staff, advocacy, policy/legislation, government bodies, publications and job opportunities.

Start Your Adventure as an Advocate on the Local Level

  • Many cities have local official or unofficial organizations that work at the neighborhood level. Washington, DC, for example, has Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) with members that are elected and serve without pay for two years. They advise the District government on issues such as zoning, streets, recreation, education, social services, sanitation, planning, safety, and health. Individuals can voice their concerns over neighborhood problems at public forums held before each meeting. This can be a great way to start your adventure as an advocate. It can also be a steppingstone to a political career. Check with your local government to find out if there are similar organizations in your city or town.
  • Do you have a school-related issue? If you haven't done so already, raise the issue at your school's parent-teacher meeting. You may find allies there. Check with your local government--meetings of the Board of Education may be open to the public and may also offer an opportunity for the public to voice concerns. If an open forum is not available, write letters to the chairman and members. Follow up on your communication. Learn about members of the Board. You may be able to find information about them on the web. Type in the name of your local city and "board education." Many locales list contact information for members of the Board with biographies, and even pictures of the members on their web site.
  • Is your issue related to city services? Meetings of a city's legislative body often offer public forums where citizens can voice their concerns or their dissatisfaction with city services. If a public forum is not available, write to your local legislator. Follow up on your communication. Again, the web is a good place to find information about your local legislator. Links to the legislative body can be found on your city's home page.
  • Contact the local legislator (usually a member of the city council) who represents the area in which you live. In many cities and towns they act as an ombudsman to help you solve local problems--potholes, trash removal, an unsafe pedestrian crossing near a senior citizen complex, or a neighborhood nuisance. If you are not sure what district you live in, check the web for district maps and for the name of your local legislator or call your public library. Invite them to a meeting of your neighbors to discuss a neighborhood issue.
  • These local public officials should be very accessible to you. Your city council member might be a member of your school's PTA, shop in the same supermarket, or even be your next door neighbor. Invite them to speak at a meeting called to discuss a neighborhood problem. Your problem may be their problem too.

Living off the Land: Where to Find the State and Local Information You Need

There are many ways to find out what's happening on the state or local level.

  • Your community's newspapers are a good source of news on local issues.
  • Obviously, local radio or television newscasts are sources of information. Most of these media outlets have web sites where you can find information on local issues.
  • Subscribe to a local newspaper or television station's electronic newsletter. Many of them can be customized to fit your interests. You receive updated news hours before it is broadcast or printed.
  • Many larger cities have neighborhood newspapers (often called "advertisers") which offer ads for local businesses and tradespeople. They are free and are distributed to apartment buildings and neighborhood stores. They often follow neighborhood issues not found in traditional newspapers. Local newspapers for small cities and towns will serve the same function.
  • Attend meetings of your city or town's legislative body, your local school board, or neighborhood organization.
  • Participate! Join an organization that is dedicated to the issues that are important to you.
  • Contact an organization dedicated to your issue. Ask questions, subscribe to newsletters, check their web site regularly.
  • Check with members of a coalition to which you belong. Some members are more involved than others in the day-to-day work on a particular issue and may have current information.
  • Subscribe to a state or local legislator's newsletter. This is a good way not only to keep up with what's happening, it's also a good way to find out what kinds of issues he's interested in. It may also alert you to meetings or hearings on legislative issues you'd like to attend or the upcoming legislative schedule.
  • Check the web regularly, especially your state legislature's site. Information may be available to you more quickly than waiting for print publications.
  • Use your state legislature's site to track the progress of state bills or call your state legislator and talk to the staff member who is working with the bill. That's also a good opportunity for you to build a relationship with the staff member.
  • Use your favorite search engine to find information on the web. You may be surprised at the amount of information you find. Not everything on the web is reliable--use information only from trusted sources. If you don't see what you are looking for on page one or two of the results, be sure to look through several levels. Your information may be on page 9 or 10!!
    • Type in two or three keywords.
    • If you don't find what you want
      • Add or subtract a key word
      • Change one or more of your keywords.
      • Alter the sequence of your keywords. This could affect the hierarchy of your results.
      • Try finding links to your information on related sites.

Influencing Policy at the State and Local Levels

Increasingly, state and local laws and regulations are extremely influential in determining how funds are distributed and how services are delivered, so it is important not to neglect elected officials at those levels. With less federal government control over the delivery of social services, states will play an increasing role in determining eligibility and frequency, location and types of services. Government downsizing, departmental reorganizations, changes in funding priorities, or simple funding cuts can affect the delivery of vision-related services in your state, sometimes almost overnight! As states take greater fiscal and programmatic responsibility, your voice as an advocate will be even more critical.

This shift in focus to state legislatures and state government agencies will increase the need for grassroots activity at this more local level where constituents are closer to legislators. Legislatures have the responsibility to not only pass new laws, but to oversee the effectiveness of existing programs. This is yet another reason why you need to be an effective state advocate.

Although the tips for meeting with members of Congress apply equally to your state and local representatives, the structure of government differs considerably from state to state, county to county, city to city, or town to town-the number of legislative houses, part-time versus full-time legislators, the timing of legislative sessions, the committees, the role of state agencies in formulating legislation and policy, the methods of tracking legislation, and even the importance of behind-the-scene negotiations versus floor debates in passing legislation. All of these factors can influence your approach to state level advocacy.

Short state legislative sessions make advance preparation and the ability to move quickly and change strategies necessary. Local governments are even more variable. Therefore, it is important to obtain information on how the legislative process in your area works before you plan your strategy. The League of Women Voters publishes several pamphlets that help citizens analyze the structure and function of local government. Some state and local chapters of the League of Women Voters publish lists of representatives, detailed guides to state and local governments, materials on how to track legislation, and lobbying tips. You'll find the League of Women Voters State & Local Leagues at www.lwv.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Find_a_Local_League.

Make a little time count for a lot. Generally, legislation moves more quickly on the state level. Procedures are less formal than on the federal level. Knowing the legislative process, or knowing someone who does, is critical when working in either venue. With shorter legislative sessions, a bill may move quickly from concept to final passage which means that you may not have a lot of time to mobilize constituent support or opposition. Although you may see quicker results from your advocacy efforts, in most instances you will have precious little time to work. Accordingly, what you have done before the legislative session begins-good old fashioned preparation-becomes even more critical.

Plan Ahead

  • Check the legislature's schedule. Plan your deadlines accordingly.
  • Does your legislator have staff? This can influence your approach.
  • Research. Try to identify a champion in the legislative body. This can be where newsletters, biographies, and news stories can help you to identify a legislator with an interest in your issue.
  • Meet with the legislator or his legislative staff if they are available before the legislative session begins to line up support.
  • Create your background material, proposed legislative language, talking points.
  • Determine your bottom line.
  • Educate and energize your grassroots.
  • Identify allies among organizations with mutual interests; solicit them for support.
  • Identify opponents. Prepare responses. Try to negotiate agreement Try to anticipate problems. Have solutions and compromises ready.

Prepared September 2008